Joe and Anthony Russo are riding high—about as high as it’s possible to get—as their superhero showdown Avengers: Endgame surpassed $2.5B in global gross to sink Titanic and take second place with Avatar in sight for the all time top grossing film. The brothers have spent the last seven years at Marvel working with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely on two Captain America films and two Avengers films, which, by the time the latest is done, will have grossed in excess of $6 billion.
So what a time it is for the Russos to jump out of their safety zone by launching full steam ahead with their monied production company AGBO, through which they’ll develop, produce and co-finance films, TV series and other projects—including remakes of certain MGM properties such as The Thomas Crown Affair, which is being developed as a vehicle for Michael B. Jordan.
The Clevaland-born siblings today present to buyers their next directorial project, Cherry, which will star Tom Holland, with an event at the Carlton Hotel Grand Ballroom. They also joined the producer roster of their buddy Chris Hemsworth’s comedy vehicle with Tiffany Haddish, Down Under Cover, one of the hottest packages on the Croisette.
The Russos have been planning the leap for several years, but they couldn’t have chosen a better time to launch their label, with spacious headquarters nearly done down in LA’s fashion district, and Markus and McFeely serving as their co-presidents of story. But little of the siblings’ success has been down to luck. Instead they attribute their rise to a series of “shoestring saves”.
Their story starts after they ran up an astronomical credit card debt—$30,000—to fund their debut avant-garde film Pieces, only to find their decision to cut the film to unsecured music from bands like Led Zeppelin and Funkadelic would have cost $1 million they didn’t have. Despite a stream of walkouts at the film’s only showing at Slamdance—one critic snarked that the film was so derivative of Martin Scorsese that someone should bury the negative to Mean Streets in the desert, so that no one else could be inspired by it ever again—the film found one massively important, high-profile supporter in Steven Soderbergh.
Soderbergh sparked to the Russos’ potential and godfathered them through their first “real” film project, 2002’s Welcome to Collinwood. Later, Ron Howard saw a failed series pilot and gave them Arrested Development. That led to Community, where an episode featuring a paintball fight convinced Marvel’s Kevin Feige they could handle action. Boom—they got Captain America.
The launch of AGBO sees them jumping off the Marvel train at the most disruptive time the business has seen since the advent of television. There’s only one certainty: content is king and distribution platforms are hungry for it. “Technology is driving all this change, along with viewers’ habits,” says Joe Russo.
Adds Anthony, “What’s driving us is the belief that the future has more and greater possibilities than anything that ever existed before, and that is the road to follow.”
Their North Star? An emphasis on storytelling—Markus and McFeely will help there—of the kind that elevated their superhero work. There will also be a heavy accent on projects that touch them, like that first post-Avengers directing assignment, the modestly budgeted Cherry, based on the memoir of a PTSD-suffering soldier (to be played by Spider-Man: Far From Home’s Holland) who became addicted to drugs and began robbing banks. The Russos paid $1 million for Nico Walker’s 2018 memoir because his story hit home—they, too, are from Cleveland and have seen friends fall prey to prescription opioids back home.
That said, they’re also tying down a deal for tentpole-caliber intellectual property that Markus and McFeely will script for the Russos to direct, plus numerous TV projects and other films. These include the Matthew Michael Carnahan-directed Mosul—a drama about a police unit battling to free that city from ISIS militants—which will be their first release.
The Russos say they’ve learned much from Marvel, and its impresario Kevin Feige, that will help inform the new venture. “I remember saying to Kevin, for Captain America: Civil War, ‘We want to take your most popular character—your cash cow—and turn him into a villain,’” says Joe. “That was Iron Man, and a faction [at Marvel] wanted that to resolve in the second act and have a traditional third act. Anthony and I said we weren’t interested in doing that movie, and Kevin supported a radical choice that paid off to the tune of a billion dollars.”
That set up Avengers: Infinity War, taking the risk to a whole other level when they killed half the Marvel superhero roster; including Spider-Man, on loan from Sony. “Imagine trying to get Sony to play ball with Disney on killing Spider-Man,” laughs Anthony. “Only Kevin could have managed that.”
So what’s the rationale for launching a new company at such a turbulent time? Says Joe, “To be successful today, you have to shake things up. You have to understand social media, and how information travels on the internet. How disruption works, and the way you can generate conversation there at a very essential level. Pop culture is social media. It’s a giant global conversation being had by millions of people around the world, voices all shouting into this collective stream. Civil War, Infinity War and Endgame were all very disruptive, loud choices, and the ratio of disruption has been reflected in the box office.”
The duo originally intended to park AGBO with Fox, but then decided not to limit themselves. Ironically, the subsequent Disney deal would have meant they were back at their old studio. Still, they have no regrets. “We love Disney but wanted to be agnostic,” says Anthony. “The times that Joe and I got frustrated came when we had overhead deals in television, and it limited our deal-making abilities. We hated corporate structures that limited us in terms of the house we could build.”
Says Joe, “Ultimately, what’s interesting to us is ownership and control. It’s a big priority. We’ll either have a co-fi right or creative control on ones we don’t co-fi. That’s what will get us out of bed in the morning. We’ve done this for 25 years, at varying levels of success, both in film and TV. We’re comfortable with our decision-making process, and we’ve learned that the more time you spend on storytelling instead of politics, the better off you’ll be. If you can tell serialized stories you can win—and that goes for film and television. Some of the TV shows we’ve seen have been some of the best content I’ve ever seen, and they’re often better than any movie I’ve seen this year.”
“Look,” says Anthony, “we may go broke. That’s one of the possibilities here.”
“But, ultimately,” interrupts Joe, “we’ve learned that at the end of the day, we’d rather succeed or fail on our own terms. That makes you a much happier and healthier person than if you were to fail on someone else’s terms. There is a lot of money available for storytelling in a way that there never was before. A lot of people bemoan the ubiquity of comic book films, but it’s about serialization of storytelling, and Marvel happened to capture the spirit of changes in technology and [saw] that serialized event storytelling is a sure way to get people out of their houses.
“I think that will become more true as the years progress,” he decides. “We’re not going back to ’70s auteur filmmaking. There are tremendous opportunities.”
At the premiere of Avengers: Endgame, the Russos took the stage alongside every hero in the MCU, and they were among many whose run as signature superheroes was over. The significance wasn’t lost on any of them.
“It was something you can’t really put into words,” Anthony says. “But making that movie, everyone had the sense this was a special moment in time, that we had gone through a life cycle and like all life cycles, when they come to an end there’s a sadness and a gratitude.”
Says Joe: “The enormity of all of it might not hit us for a while, but it’s been an amazing journey, a really unique experiment. I’ve been texting with some of the other filmmakers as they respond to the movie, like Ryan Coogler, Peyton Reed and Taika Waititi, and expressing to them how rare this is that this many artists can get together, pass the baton so selflessly to each other and work collectively to tell a story.”